Charm of the Old South

"Why in God's name are you going over there?" asked the woman at the tourist information desk at New Orleans Airport. Visions of rough and embittered rednecks living in squat backwater towns danced in her head.

You would have thought Mississippi was some kind of national wilderness area, rude and mean and dirty, and very poor. Why would any civilized traveler leave New Orleans to go there?

People in the elegant little community of Pass Christian--one of the most charming and distinctive of the Mississippi coast towns--were not horrified or even surprised by that story.

"Yes, tell them we're terrible," one local leader urged "We want to stay a secret. We keep a low profile--and we scowl," he said, smiling roundly.

Although they may not talk about it much, wealthy folk from New Orleans, inland planters and other gentry have been coming to Pass Christian for years. Some wanted to escape the steamy summers and yellow-fever epidemics that beset New Orleans and other Southern cities in the 19th Century. Others came, and still come, for sun and seaside fun. Recently, Northerners have begun to winter here, too.

Pleasure in Genteel Forms

Pass Christian is, above all, a place of pleasure in its most genteel forms. The town is an unusual kind of resort, without a single hotel, motel or nightclub, and just a few restaurants to call its own. The pleasures of Pass Christian, as with several communities along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, are not obvious, although at least some of them are visible to the touring motorist seeking a scenic spot about an hour's drive from New Orleans.

As you head out U.S. 90 from New Orleans toward Mississippi, the first sights are not particularly inviting. The road passes assorted flood-prone houses; fishing camps with names like "Witt's End," "Dis and Dat," and "Blood, Sweat and Beer," and a snake farm.

Eventually the low-lying marshes give way to cut-over pine lands. Soon the highway skirts the community of Waveland and heads to Bay St. Louis. In the years before completion of Interstate 10 to the north, and the stretch of road was proclaimed "The Praline Capital of the World." Dozens of small, family-owned praline factories and shops selling pralines, shells and other souvenirs dotted the roadway. A few still remain, with sweets worth sampling.

The Bay St. Louis-Waveland area also was the first stop on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad heading east of New Orleans. After Louisiana outlawed dueling in 1870, gamblers, aristocrats and other offended souls came here to settle some of their personal quarrels.

Water sports abound. Another pastime, seen only rarely now, is moss gathering. George Janvier, who vacationed here as a boy, remembered how "people carrying long, hooked poles used to go out in shallow boats--we called them pirogues--to spear Spanish moss. They'd collect it and dry it to make moss mattresses."

Route of Old Spanish Trail

After bridging the bay, U.S. 90 follows the route of the Old Spanish Trail. Rounding Henderson Point, it becomes a picturesque beach boulevard with sand and sea to the south and, to the north, a delightful assemblage of antebellum mansions, plus a few Creole-style cottages.

Magnificent old oaks and magnolias come down to meet the sea, forming an archway over a scenic drive on a sandy bluff slightly set back from the main highway. This is Pass Christian, coy belle of the coast.

The community, population 4,600, has almost as many explanations for how it got its name as it has residents. Most people agree that the name has to do with a navigable passage in its otherwise shallow coastal waters. However the name came about, the town, founded in 1699, became a resort in the 1840s. Monied Louisiana planters raced their boats from New Orleans to Pass Christian and stayed for the weekends to sail and fish and golf and party. Stylish vacation homes and boarding houses were built along the coast. The first yacht club in the South formed here in 1849.

Just after the turn of the century, railroad ties linked the new nearby city of Gulfport with the north, and most businesses moved from Pass Christian to its booming neighbor. Within 20 years, Pass Christian's hotels went out of business and its tourist trade shifted elsewhere.

Today "The Pass," as it's known, continues to function as a resort for wealthy cognoscente who maintain vacation homes or have retired here or manage to rent a guest cottage.

But Pass Christian is remarkable less as a resort than for the glimpses it provides into the structure and style and enduring conventions of Southern society, Deep South version. The community is stratified vertically and horizontally, and a driving tour of its streets makes the patterns plain.

Along Beach Boulevard (U.S. 90) and Scenic Drive, which both front on the ocean, are mansions owned by New Orleans businessmen and descendants of inland planters who made their money in cotton, sugar or rice. Particularly notable structures are Ballymere, the oldest house still standing in town, built in 1839, at 551 E. Scenic Drive; the McCutcheon-Ewing House, circa 1850, at 829 Scenic Drive; the Parham-Katz House, circa 1909, at 800 W. Beach Blvd., and the Blue Rose, circa 1848, operating as a restaurant at 120 W. Scenic Drive. (The food isn't fascinating, but the cockatoos on the side porch are fun.)

Enduring Conventions

Many of the mansions show the West Indian custom of devoting the ground floor to service quarters and using a second story, reached by outside stairways, as the center of family life. Wide center halls, massive cornices that hide the roofs, octagonal wood columns and partially enclosed porches known as galleries also are common. A few homes, such as the one at 243 E. Scenic Drive, have side garconieres-- "where the boys slept"--that also serve as guest cottages.

Daniel Taylor, who has done extensive surveys of Pass Christian architecture, found 473 houses eligible for inclusion on the National Historic Register. Several examples of Creole country cottages, some with pyramidal hip roofs, and many oblong "shotgun" homes, are on Lang and E. Railroad avenues.

The shotgun homes are one-room wide with the rooms lined up directly behind each other," so that a gunshot fired through the front entrance could go right out the back door without hitting anything," Taylor explained.

Other Landmark Structures

Among other landmarks in town are the Gothic Trinity Episcopal Church at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Church Street; the Sears House at 333 Menge Ave., ordered entirely from a Sears catalogue in 1920, and a magnificent oak, itself on a special register of distinguished Southern trees, behind the South Mississippi Retardation Center at the northwestern end of White Harbor Road.

Catherine Wood, president of the Altar Society at a Catholic church, remarked, "The Pass is the last place on the coast where you can still see the way it used to be. It's relaxing. We like to get together and have a good time--at house parties, tea parties, whatever."

For the most part Pass Christian seems at ease with itself and its economic future; gracious and friendly despite all the stratification, and comfortable in the way that self-content communities often are.

"Some things stay the same, and that's very nice," said Laurie Matkin, executive secretary of the chamber of commerce, at a silver tea party.

"I see the lovely old mansions and the white picket fences and I think all's right with the world."

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